Why Deny Ethiopian National Identity ? (Tedla Woldeyohannes, Ph.D.)

This experience of feeling superior to other ethnic groups can and does manifest itself in the use of derogatory terms to refer to people who do not belong to the ethnic group of the regime in power. No need to mention the derogatory terms with which various ethnic groups were called during the period of the Amhara-Tigrayan dominance in the Ethiopian state formation. As a matter of fact, using derogatory terms to belittle and degrade people from other ethnic groups is not limited to those who belong to the regime in power due to their association with the regime in power in virtue of their ethnic identity. Using derogatory terms for people from other groups, ethnic or religion, or other categories people use to distinguish themselves from others, is a universal human phenomenon. I call this innocent but unfortunate human experience. It is “innocent” because it is often a result of ignorance of the fact that there are no superior or inferior people, but people do hold a false belief about others. It is “unfortunate” because it is always with us and will always be with us, to one degree or another.

Recognizing Derogatory Terms

Now, let us further develop the role of derogatory terms in the debate regarding Ethiopian national identity. What is the role of the derogatory terms used by people from the dominant culture? It is hard to establish how many people had engaged in using derogatory terms in reference to ethnic groups such as the Oromos by the Amharas, etc. Should all Amharas ever existed be held accountable for the use of derogatory terms, say, in reference to the Oromos? How do we go about determining an answer to this question? Similarly, what should people from the South, say, from Wolaytta, do about the fact that they were also called in derogatory terms during the time of the Amhara-Tigrayan dominance in Ethiopian history? I know the experience firsthand. What should someone like me do to this experience? I see no reason that leads to the denial of Ethiopian national identity as a reasonable response to such experiences. There is no reason to believe that the state had forced, by law, individual citizens to refer to people from other ethnic groups in degrading ways. After all, we all know that referring to people from other groups in derogatory terms is not limited to those who belong to an ethnic group of a dominant culture or the ruling class at one point or another. Having said this, I am not, by any means, condoning any use of degrading and belittling terms by any group whatsoever. How we handle such human experiences makes a huge difference going forward.

Properly Handling Derogatory Terms

Those of us who have had opportunities to study and reflect on the human nature and the human condition find no basis in reality that justifies referring to fellow human beings in derogatory terms. We all know that we are all humans and all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity, period. Furthermore, we all know that identity formation allows mixing myths with truth in such a way that encourages a tendency for people to falsely believe their ethnic group or any group they belong to is better than others. Since we know this and we know that this is wrong, the right response to the use of derogatory terms is to educate people that we are after all humans and there is no better human or superior human since we all belong to the same family—the human family. I think the right response to those who called us names is not to respond in kind. Remember that no ethnic group is blameless when it comes to referring to others in derogatory terms. Hence, there is no moral ground that justifies responding in derogatory terms to those who call us in derogatory terms. There is no moral progress in doing so. It is rather a regress. Repeating the past mistakes and expecting a better future is paradoxical and futile.

Those victims of derogatory terms who understand and know why people engage in such degrading human actions can rightly have a pity on those who called them names and can forgive them because those who truly believe that we all deserve to be treated with dignity would not engage in such belittling actions. It is better to forgive them than to respond in kind since to respond in kind is to repeat the same mistake. However, this does not mean that those who belittled their fellow human beings would have nothing to do about their actions. The right thing for them to do is to apologize to the victims of their dehumanizing actions when that is feasible and possible. Now the real question is how we, as a society, can engage in apologizing to our actions and forgiving those who wronged us. It is easier suggesting the above as a general solution to our societal ills in the midst of examining the question why one would deny Ethiopian national identity, but the practical way to handle the suggestion is complicated. From what I argued above, one thing seems to be clear: Denial of Ethiopiawinet is not the most reasonable response to such experiences from our shared yet flawed history.

Furthermore, consider this scenario: Take the Oromo people and the Amhara people. Now to the questions: Are the whole living Amhara and Tigrayan people expected to apologize to the Oromos and other ethnic groups for the practice of using derogatory terms for generations? Is it the case that we have evidence that all Amhara and Tigrayan people have engaged in such degrading actions against all other ethnic groups because the Amhara and Tigrayans belonged to the dominant culture? Or, is it the case that the Amharas and Tigarayans in power have made it an official policy of the state to degrade people who are not members of the dominant culture? Do we have in our history something like the experiences of African-Americans who were denied, for example, to vote, to intermarry with the whites, to live in the same neighborhoods with the whites or to go to the same school with the whites? Also, as I suggested above, no ethnic group is completely free from using terms to belittle others even when the others belittled are not part of the dominant culture or they are not part of the ruling class. What should we do about all these? Did the Oromos actually never commit anything that violated the rights and dignity of members of any other ethnic groups or even fellow Oromos in the long history of state formation or scrambling over scarce economic resources? Are all Oromos innocent of any wrongdoing? All of us know that typical state formations and scrambling over scarce economic resources lead to conflicts and animosity among any people groups. When we talk about state formation, we are not talking about a “democratic Ethiopia” a hundred years ago while we’re acutely aware of the fact that there is no democratic Ethiopia even at this very moment in our history. The examples about the Amharas and Tigrayans and the Oromos are only meant to illustrate the issues under discussion. I am not suggesting that these are the only ethnic groups who carry scars from the time of state formation over the centuries. The moral of the preceding questions is this: Our view about our past must be realistic and it must be based on an adequate understanding of state formation that had very little or no room to discourage human rights violations. One thing is clear: The way we understand our past and how we handle it makes a significant difference to the future we want to have and shape. Furthermore, to understand our past does not imply that we should accept everything from our past uncritically or we should believe that our past is without flaws. Neither view is correct. (To continue on page 3 click below)

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